This past weekend, I attended Dallas Comic-Con’s free Fan Appreciation Day at the Irving Convention Center in Irving, Texas. There I had the opportunity to interview a prolific and talented local comic book artist, Steve Erwin, who has had a successful career in comic books and illustration. He is most widely known as the co-creator of DC Comics’ Checkmate and spent three years as the artist for Deathstroke, The Terminator. His current project is a graphic novel adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. I sat down with Mr. Erwin to talk about comic books, his life, career and current projects.
David Whiteman: Let me just start with some basics. Where are you from?
Steve Erwin: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I grew up in bits and pieces around the country. I spent the first half of my elementary school years in California, a brief time in Texas and then back to Oklahoma again.
DW: Are you currently living in Oklahoma?
SE: No, I live here in North Texas. In 1982, I moved to Houston to get married and I've been living in Texas since. I moved to the DFW area in ’86…It’s the longest I've ever lived in any one place.
DW: If you could just say a little bit about how you got started in comics.
SE: I've loved comic books since I was a kid; it’s kind of the usual story for everybody. But what made me want to draw comics, I think, was wanting to tell stories and my biggest influence there was my grandfather. He used to tell stories all the time; he was kind of an old, homespun storyteller; the kind of person you’d’ see sitting and telling stories around the campfire. He actually would tell stories on his front porch and the local kids would come and sit in the front yard and listen to him spin tales. I have very vague memories about that because I was very young…my mother tells me. I kind of always wanted to tell stories like that but I’m not a writer, that’s not my skill set. I've always liked to draw and I've always been an artist. And the thing I liked about comic books, which I think hit me very early on as a kid, is that you could tell stories in pictures. When I got old enough that I could actually to put that thought process together and it was something I wanted to pursue.
DW: What about your art education?
SE: In high school and after high school, I pursued an art career, back in those days we called it commercial art. To make a living doing artwork, one way or another, I was able to do that over the years. I attended a technical school [in Oklahoma] my junior and senior year for commercial art and that was followed with commercial art courses and art classes at Oklahoma State Tech…I can’t say there was any comics training in that, it was all just straight commercial art (or illustration), publication, how to create artwork for advertising, magazines, that kind of thing. To date myself a little bit, computers were not used in creating artwork in those days; it was all stuff done by hand. I had the benefit of learning the process by hand.
DW: Do you remember what your first major comic book was or when you first got into DC Comics?
SE: Yeah, It was kind of a weird chain of events. My wife was very accommodating about my wanting to draw comic books. She was very supportive, and one of the things that attracted me to her in the first place was she was one of the first females that I met and dated, that had an appreciation for comics as an art form. She was a big science-fiction fan and we had a lot of things in common along those lines. She was kind of reintroduced into the comics’ medium by me, she had read them for a long time and she was very impressed with how far [they had come]…and how women were treated in comics at the time. This was when the Teen Titans was a new thing out there and the X-Men had taken off really well with very strong, supportive, female characters…
So, long story short, she supported me to take my portfolio to conventions and talk to comics’ professionals. Back in those days, a lot of publishers actually went to the conventions as well as the writers and artists so I took advantage of that and showed my portfolio around. There was a small start-up company out of Texas called Elite Comics and they hired me to do one of their titles. That didn't last very long. Unfortunately, the company just kind of came and went out of business, but it gave me an opportunity to get some artwork together. At one of the conventions, First Comics had a nice, big appearance; the publisher, the art director and Mike Grell and a few other people were at the convention. I showed my portfolio to Mike Grell, he was very complimentary about the work, in fact, he took me aside and asked me to kind of wait in an area for a few minutes and then he disappeared with my portfolio. When he came back, he had the publisher and art director with him and he said that he told them they might want to have a little talk with me. So we chatted for a little bit and they offered me a trial 8-page story as a backup feature. So that first one led to part two and part three in what turned out to be a three-part backup. That was my first real professional paid artwork on John Ostrander and Tim Truman’s Grimjack. That led to my doing a couple of larger assignments, I actually wound up doing some final artwork [finished pencils and inks] on the last issue of Grimjack.
Timing kind of being everything in the comics business like it is everywhere else, the editor that I was working for signed up getting a job for DC Comics and one of the experiments he took over was Vigilante, and he needed a new artist and gave me a call and said I’d like [you] to take a stab at that gig. It was one of those situations that I felt almost like I didn't know if I was ready for that or not, and that’s a case where it’s really good to have a strong woman behind you because she glared and said “How do you not take this assignment?”… The worst is that you mess up but you got to take a shot. I agreed to that and what the case turned out to be was Vigilante was on the cancellation schedule. They had a new book to take its place, so I drew the last few issues of Vigilante and finished off the series as well as that particular version of the character. That was replaced on the schedule with Checkmate and I worked so closely with that, that I have the co-creator credit for Checkmate.
DW: I remember after that you did work on the adaptation of Batman Returns, Star Trek and then you got into Deathstroke, The Terminator. Deathstroke has become a pretty popular character and you were on a long run of that through the 90’s.
SE: Yeah, I was on like the first three years.
DW: Did you like the character?
SE: Yeah, I liked him a lot, it’s kind of fun to draw a character who’s that mercenary, but wasn't evil. And I had my own interpretation of working with the character. I felt a little uncomfortable working with the character that was potentially that violent, but it really wasn't as violent as Vigilante. In my interpretation, it was violent in a different sense; Vigilante was very much...there was more cold-blooded killing. Deathstroke was more action and adventure and like killing was almost like a hazard that happens during the course of the adventure.
DW: In your opinion, what do you think of the adaptation of Deathstroke (portrayed by Manu Bennett) in the Arrow TV series?
SE: It’s an interesting take on the character; I watch it pretty closely to see what parallels, if any, they were following from when I was working on the book and I know there have been several versions of the character since my version of the book. I kind of had the impressions that the TV version is a little bit of a conglomeration of everything set within the context of the TV show to make the character work. I found it very interesting.
DW: What can you tell me about Citizen of the Galaxy?
SE: In a nutshell, it was written originally by Robert Heinlein. It was one of his classic books in what’s considered his juvenile series of books, one of the last ones he did of the juvenile series. The story behind the graphic novel itself was a couple of the guys that work for the company that control the rights to a lot of Heinlein’s properties. They’re also very much comic fans and they were really interested in getting any of his properties adapted as graphic novels, because none have ever been. One of the missions of the company we work for, (Virginia Edition), they keep they’re Heinlein properties in print in very high-end, really nice, hard-back books and they licensed them out for softcover print. The stewardship of the company has been very hesitant to put anything out that they felt wasn't of high-quality standard. The people running the company weren't really up on current graphic novels and they didn't want to see Heinlein’s material turned into a “comic book”. So after a lot of discussion, they made the argument to the powers that be in the company that graphic novels are very high-end quality publications and a lot of movies and TV shows have in fact been based on graphic novels. Part of the mission of Virginia Edition is to see that newer generations are exposed to Heinlein’s works; you kind of have to go where the audience is. The idea of let’s do a really nice-quality graphic novel and try it out there and see how it works. They were given permission to use one of the titles, they were given Citizen of the Galaxy and given an open-ended option on a license for it and they were also given the mission of funding it themselves, so they started a Kickstarter campaign to generate interest in it. I got pulled into it much later. The guys behind this project they had it all lined up except an actual artist to draw it. So kind of late in the Kickstarter campaign, they actually started looking for an artist and they contacted the people they knew and people kept referring them to other people…then one thing led to another and then I finally got the phone call we chatted about it and we took it from there.
DW: You've been here at Dallas Comic-Con several times. What do you think of the Free Fan Day?
SE: I think it’s a great idea! I have no idea how they’re funding it, as far as no gate admission or anything. I think it’s a great idea, a lot of people show up because often you don’t get to go to a comic show for free and there’s a lot of people here to see it.
DW: Thank you very much for your time.
Steve Erwin continues to further his art career while working on several comic book projects and also does work for Comic Art Commissions and as a freelance illustrator for Lineworks Creative. It was a pleasure to talk with such a talented artist.